didn't notice Darcy Tucker barreling at him from the left side, dipping at the
waist in preparation for an explosive hip check. It was much too late when Peca
finally realized what was happening. He braced himself as Tucker's hip and
rear cut right through his legs and sent him flying.
The impact put enough stress on Peca's left knee to tear the anterior
cruciate ligament. He was done for the season and so, it seemed, were the
Islanders, who went on without him to lose the playoff series to the Toronto
Maple Leafs in seven games. The hit took place in Game 5.
Peca faced reconstructive knee surgery and six months of rehabilitation.
"When you have plays like that, it's a shame, because we don't need these
things in the playoffs," said Dallas Stars center Pierre Turgeon, who knows a
little about cheap hits, having suffered a shoulder separation when he was hit
from behind by the Capitals' Dale Hunter as he celebrated a goal in a 1993
playoff game. "It's fine to be physical, but that stuff is not called for."
The hip check arguably is the dirtiest allowable move in sports, one that,
despite being legal, can ruin a player's career.
Tucker's hit on Peca appeared so premeditated and vile that it ignited a
debate in hockey. Are hip checks too dangerous? Is the NHL doing enough to
protect players from getting hurt? Before current rules were instituted, were
players safer when they basically policed themselves?
Tucker was not even penalized for The Hit, which was deemed legal by the
on-ice officials as well as NHL officials who reviewed the play after the game.
But it certainly didn't go unnoticed. After an NHL playoff season filled
with four other vicious hits that resulted in serious injury (see chart), the
NHL acknowledged the problem at the general managers' meeting in Vancouver this
Then, in September, league officials sent out their annual memo, entitled
"Player Disciplinary Procedures for the 2002-03 Season," to every GM and
player. It warned of a much stricter adherence to rules regarding dangerous
hits such as blows to the head and low hits like the hip check Tucker placed on
"Everyone is on notice," the memo said.
The memo also said: "We intend to impose more severe discipline than in the
past, including suspensions where none might have been imposed in past
seasons. We intend to review any and all such acts."
For some reason - possibly to maintain the aggressive aura of the sport -
the league did not publicize these rule enforcement changes and refused to give
Newsday a copy of the memo. And the man responsible for discipline in the NHL,
Colin Campbell, declined to be interviewed for this story.
Another league official, who did not want his name used, would not say
whether Tucker's hit on Peca would have resulted in a suspension under the
newer, stricter guidelines. He did say it would have been at least a penalty
and game misconduct.
"The referee would have to make the call. You can't make the game vanilla,"
the league source said, explaining that the league simply wants to make the
hitters more accountable.
Tonight, all eyes will be on Tucker and Peca when their teams meet at
Nassau Coliseum for the first time since that brutal playoff series in which
Peca was lost and Kenny Jonsson suffered a concussion after being hit from
behind by Toronto's Gary Roberts.
Hitting is as much a part of the game as goal-scoring, but there exists a
fine and subjective line between clean and dirty hits, such as the hip check.
Active players most notorious for low-bridge hip checks are San Jose Sharks
defenseman Bryan Marchment and Rangers defenseman Darius Kasparaitis. Tucker
and Peca also are known hitmen, and on top of that, they've had a longstanding
and heated rivalry.
"It wasn't a dirty hit," Toronto GM Pat Quinn said. "I've been around a
long time and I've seen Mike [Peca] do worse to other people. We drafted Mike
out in Vancouver, so I've seen his act."
The league source contends that the situation involving Peca and Tucker was
a personal battle that got out of hand, not the result of one player looking
to "take out" an opponent's star player.
"Tucker wouldn't hit [Alexei] Yashin that way," the person said. "I think
there's a code."
The unspoken code is that hitters go after other hitters, not finesse
Peca engaged Tucker in verbal sparring as the series started and mocked the
Leafs to the media. "They've got some guys that think they're bullies, you
know," Peca said.
Tucker was heard screaming at Peca from the penalty box in Game 3: "I'm
gonna take you out!"
Peca delivered a few hard hits on Tucker during the emotionally charged
Games 3 and 4 at Nassau Coliseum, and Tucker tried without success to retaliate
by goading Peca into a fight - a common practice since the instigator rule was
instituted in 1992-93. (A player who is deemed to be the instigator of an
altercation shall be assessed an instigating minor penalty, a major for
fighting and a 10-minute misconduct. A player is deemed an instigator when he
attacks or jumps his opponent and the opponent either is unable or unwilling to
defend himself.) Peca didn't take the bait and simply glared at Tucker as
officials escorted him to the penalty box.
"I hear the same rhetoric over and over," Peca said. "It's almost comical."
But after The Hit, nothing seemed funny as the Islanders' $20-million
captain lay on the ice at Air Canada Centre.
Peca returned to the Islanders' lineup three weeks ago, about two months
earlier than expected, but time will tell what impact the injury has on the
fast and gritty center's future.
"I don't know how in the long run it will affect his career," Islanders GM
Mike Milbury said, "but it certainly put his career in jeopardy."
Tucker has said very little about the incident, other than denying that the
hit was premeditated. "It was not a dirty hit," he said.
Others beg to differ.
"It was awfully close," San Jose Sharks GM Dean Lombardi said. "If you make
that a penalty, it's a different story. Maybe it should be a penalty."
Turgeon simply feels there was too much malice in the action and not enough
of a response by the league to discourage it. "The penalties have to be
severe," he said, especially "because it's the playoffs."
"It's a method for not just taking someone out, but to injure them,"
Milbury said. "I don't think there's a place for it in the game."
There is an argument that it no longer can have a place in the game because
of rules, such as the instigator penalty, that keep players from policing
themselves when a dirty hit is made.
"In the old days, a guy did something and he paid for it for a long while,"
said veteran tough guy Craig Berube, now with Calgary. "Those days are over."
The league official disagreed with the notion that the inability to pick a
fight with a dirty hitter has led to a greater number of dirty hits.
"The teams that are successful, they take the [instigator] penalty and
pound the crap out of the guy," the person said. "Then they kill the two
minutes [of penalties]."
To keep that kind of vigilante violence out of hockey, the NHL is trying to
tighten the screws on ugly hits. "We intend to review any and all such acts,"
the league memo continued. Will this lead to the extinction of the low hip
Any hit at or around the knees is considered "clipping," according to the
NHL rulebook. Low hits now are reviewed more often by the league office and
subject to fine and suspension, even if a penalty isn't called.
A hip check usually is delivered by leading with one's hip into the thigh
or hip of another player. Anything lower than the thigh is considered dirty and
"I think they have to look at the hip check as a whole," Peca said in July.
"If it comes anywhere close to the knees, that's a pretty sensitive area."
Funny, then, that one of the first players this season to be penalized for
delivering a dangerously low hip check was ... Peca.
Zdeno Chara of the Ottawa Senators was standing alongside his team's bench
during the second period of a game against the Islanders Nov. 27 at Nassau
Coliseum when Peca clipped Chara in the knee and thigh. The 6-9, 240-pound
Chara crumpled to the ice and missed the rest of the game.
Peca immediately was assessed a five-minute major penalty for clipping and
a game misconduct because the hit resulted in an injury.
"After what happened to him last year, I never thought he'd do something
like that," a furious Chara said. "That was a cheap shot. He should know
Three days later, when the teams met again, Peca screamed to Chara during a
break in the action: "You're 6-9, you shouldn't go down so easily."
How soon they forget.
Some hits that have caused serious injuries in recent NHL playoffs series:
May 30, 1996: Colorado Avalanche right wing Claude Lemieux checks the Red
Wings' Kris Draper from behind in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals.
Draper, a checking-line center, falls face-first into the boards and suffers
multiple facial fractures. The NHL fines Lemieux $1,000 and suspends him for
two games. He returns in time to raise the Cup with the Avalanche.
April 25, 2002 - The Bruins' Kyle McLaren jackhammers Montreal's Richard
Zednik in Game 4 with a shoulder hit that knocks Zednik out of the first-round
series. He suffers a broken nose, concussion, bruised throat and face cuts.
McLaren is suspended for the rest of the series, which the Bruins lose.
April 26, 2002 - The Islanders lose Kenny Jonsson to a concussion when
Toronto's Gary Roberts drills him from behind, sending him face-first into the
corner boards. Roberts earns a five-minute major for the hit but no additional
discipline. Jonsson does not return for the rest of the series.
April 26, 2002: Toronto Maple Leafs left wing Darcy Tucker crouches for a
dangerously low hip check against Islanders captain Michael Peca in Game 5 of
the first-round series. Peca suffers a torn ACL and is out for the rest of the
series, which Toronto wins in seven games. Tucker is neither penalized nor
May 9, 2002: Detroit defenseman Chris Pronger lines up Red Wings center
Steve Yzerman for a big hit, but Yzerman sees him coming and dips low. The move
undercuts the oncoming Pronger and results in a torn ACL in his right knee and
a wrist injury. Pronger isn't expected to return until late this season.